- “Whenever the Yankees Were Gone, I Was a Confederate”Loyalty and Dissent in Civil War–Era Rapides Parish, Louisiana
On April 8, 1864, in the midst of the Union’s Red River expedition, the New Orleans True Delta estimated that “several hundred” free residents of Rapides Parish, Louisiana, had signed oaths promising future loyalty to the United States. U.S. military records demonstrate that more than 330 free residents of Rapides had taken loyalty oaths by that date. Following military engagements at Mansfield on April 8 and Pleasant Hill the next day, the Union campaign, intended to capture Shreveport and enter Texas, soon ended in debacle. Union forces only held Alexandria, the parish seat of Rapides, from March 15 until May 13, 1864, yet at least 907 parish residents, of whom 664 were men, swore oaths, a number that amounted to 56 percent of the parish’s voters in the January 1861 election of delegates to the state secession convention. The oath-swearing marked a turnaround in the professed allegiances of many Rapides residents, who had voted overwhelmingly for secessionist delegate candidates in January 1861. Among the oath-takers were members of the local secessionist elite, including Lewis E. Texada and John K. Elgee, two of the four men who had represented the parish at Louisiana’s January 1861 Secession Convention.1 [End Page 36]
The widespread oath-taking in Rapides, which occurred after several unionists had already been compelled to leave the parish, embarrassed local resident Thomas O. Moore, a sugar planter who had been elected governor in 1859. He wrote to a fellow local planter in June 1864: “Oh God! how I am grieved at the conduct of the citizens of Rapides” in “taking the oath.” Moore denied that the motive in taking the oath was “disloyalty.” Instead, “alarm & the conclusion that the enemy would continue to occupy the country induced them [Rapides residents] to do so.” Yet “if protection of person was what was desired,” it would have been easier for these citizens to reach the lines of Confederate general Richard Taylor than “the Yankee Provost Marshal.” Though Benjamin Butler had demanded oath-signing during his control of New Orleans, the extent of oath-taking in Rapides in so short a time unsettled Moore.2
This article examines the geographical, age, occupational, and gender breakdown of civilian oath-takers during the Union army’s brief occupation of Alexandria in 1864; explores the motivations of civilian oath-takers; and analyzes conditions in Rapides Parish before, during, and immediately after the war. In doing so, it engages debates over the practical value of loyalty oaths as a measure of loyalty, the extent of southern unionism, the vitality of Confederate nationalism, and the inability of the Republican Party to attract meaningful levels of white support in the immediate postwar period. The party’s continued failure to attract white voters contributed to the ultimate collapse of Reconstruction.3 [End Page 37]
Postwar Republicans ostensibly associated party loyalty with wartime loyalty to the Union, while historians have observed that postwar white Republicans were most often wartime unionists. One north-central Louisiana unionist later claimed that Republicanism “was a kind of transition from being a Union man. I regarded the republican party all along as being the Union party.” In the South, the most committed wartime unionists would refuse to aid Confederate authorities, and even actively support the Union cause, militarily or otherwise. While some unionists in central Louisiana, notably the future governor James Madison Wells, met this high bar of unionism, most self-consciously unionist southerners cooperated to some extent with Confederate authorities. As historian Robert Tracy McKenzie observed in his study of Civil War–era Knoxville, Tennessee, local unionists “largely acquiesced to Confederate rule and exhibited a ‘Unionism’ characterized primarily by ‘prudent silence,’ ‘strict neutrality,’ and a willingness to make money while awaiting Federal deliverance.” By the time the Union army occupied Rapides Parish, very briefly in May 1863 and for two months in 1864, the Union was fighting an emancipationist war. With Lincoln’s lenient December 1863 terms for reunion, southern unionism needed only entail acquiescence with the end of slavery and support for restoring the...